Monday, September 13, 2010


Over the weekend I saw Hugh Whitemore's play about Alan Turing, BREAKING THE CODE, at the Erickson Theatre in Seattle. It was a terrific production and Bradford Farwell, as Turing, was amazing. Not every actor can make ten minutes' of uninterrupted exposition about mathematics dramatically riveting. Turing came across as naive, enthusiastic, reckless, focused -- what the Middle Ages called "a holy innocent."

As everyone knows, Turing was not treated well by the British and American governments. His contribution to breaking the German "enigma code" was incalculably important to winning World War II, and his work led directly to the computer upon which I am typing this blog. But after the war he was hounded as a "security risk" because of his homosexuality, imprisoned, and marginalized. Finally he killed himself.

This all reminded me of another scientist ridiculed and driven to a nervous breakdown for an important discovery: Ignaz Semmelweiss. He was a physician who discovered that a major cause of puerperal fever after childbirth was doctors. They were going directly from handling cadavers to delivering babies and attending new mothers. Semmelweiss found that in his hospital, simple hand-washing cut the incidence of puerperal fever to 1%. For this he was scorned and rejected by the medical community, in part for the assertion that doctors, gentlemen all, could possibly be doing something wrong.

What this brings to mind is a large question: What discovery (in any field) are we, right now, rejecting and scorning because it doesn't fit with what we think we know? And at what cost?

Good theater is supposed to raise such questions. BREAKING THE CODE does.


cd said...

Oh, that's an easy one. All mainstream economists ridicule and marginalize ecological economics for taking as axioms the simple facts that our ecosystem has finite resources and has finite room for additional trash. For trying to study the impact of these facts, ecological economics is marginalized in every way -- the work ignored by other economists, not accepted in the highest rated economics journals, the main academic departments don't hire the scholars, and the plum government and other jobs are denied to those scholars. It's Semmelweis on an international scale.

A.R.Yngve said...

The current environmental dangers being marginalized now *might* be:

A) The Sibirian permafrost is melting, releasing potentially disastrous amounts of "buried" greenhouse gases;

B) The oceans are absorbing an excess of carbon dioxide, turning ordinary seawater into carbolic acid... which might kill off we-don't-yet-know-how-much sea life.

But... we are also marginalizing -- because humans tend to think of themselves as both the cause and reason for everything that's going on -- the impact of the Sun's energy output cycles on Earth's climate.

The thing is, we have absolutely no control over the Sun. And I think people have a hard time accepting this lack of control (remember, some ancient cultures once thought they could command the Sun through human sacrifice).

Another theory that's being marginalized right now is the possibility that time itself is slowing down -- which would explain why the universe seems to be expanding faster and faster -- we're seeing the past in our telescopes, when time went faster, and we are approaching the moment when we and everything slows to an absolute stop.

Time slowing down sounds perfectly reasonable to me. But what would happen to us, physically, if time actually stopped?

Frank Böhmert said...

But what would happen to us, physically, if time actually stopped?

Well, I doon't knnnoooooooo--

TheOFloinn said...

History is always local and particular, and it is never entirely wise to look at the past through the lens of what happened afterward. People don't live ex post facto, and to understand history, as my old professor used to say, "You have to look at Salamis as if the Persians might still win." That is, with whatever knowledge or insight people actually had at the time. Otherwise, we risk thinking of folks as speed bumps on the Road to Progress simply because they opposed others who later turned out to be right.

Motives are usually hard to discern - much harder than purposes - but they might not always be what we ascribe in our present-day wisdom.

There have been cases of Gadflies versus the Settled Consensus Science in the past and, amazingly enough, the Gadflies are not always right. Nor are they always wrong. And they are not always right or wrong for the same reasons.

Just the other day, there was a pre-print went up claiming that the fine structure constant wasn't. And that would imply that either Planck's constant or the speed of light constant weren't. But the regions of the sky where alpha seemed higher or lower were regions examined by two different telescopes in two opposed hemispheres. The quality engineer in me pondered: measurement instrument reproducibility? Maybe. But what if the cosmological constants were variable over the universe or over time? But this is a heterodox proposal that is simply being looked at and questioned. It's not being semmelweissed like those who question AGW or like Galileo or like Velikovsky.

Might be interesting to ask which proposals garner that irrational ritual hate and which ones don't.

Bryan H. Bell said...

A classic text on this theme is Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

Nancy Kress said...

That sounds like a good book. I'll get it.

cd said...

Kuhn Schmun.